Reality programming’s old-time radio great-great-great-grandfather, of which fans would speak in terms of plain old mad fun and critics would speak of plain old madness, premieres seventy-five years ago tonight on NBC, dedicated shamelessly to the proposition that, humans being as they are, they—or a significant number among them—will do absolutely anything, short of murder, for money, prizes, or both.
Created and hosted by jovial journeyman CBS announcer Ralph Edwards, Truth or Consequences –an idea he has derived from the forfeits game he played during his farmland childhood—becomes either a national habit or a national guilty pleasure, depending upon how you take the show.
The fact that Edwards and company deliver this weekly festival of prankishness to a home audience that can’t see but can only hear the insanity—the consequences for failing to answer certain questions ran the gamut from being ordered to cry like a baby for its bottle to being ordered to bed with a seal . . . in the middle of Hollywood and Vine—doesn’t faze him or his sponsors in the slightest.
Well, as a certain television network will come to make its catch phrase, we report . . . you decide, whether or when T & C, not to mention its assorted progeny, jumps the proverbial shark or decides the shark didn’t even exist.
Our show has keen insight into the taste of America. It’s the kind of show that could easily go off key. To use a four-bit word, it could have its empathy destroyed, if we didn’t know exactly how far you can go. We have a perfect feeling between the artists—you should excuse the expression—and the audience.
We have a husband and wife in the act, say. One pushes a pie in the other’s face. But the important thing is that it all works out well in the end. The audience has to feel that the husband and wife got together again before it’s over. It just can’t be one of them pulling a gag on the other.
—Ralph Edwards, to John Crosby of the New York Herald-Tribune, 7 August 1950. Republished in John Crosby, Out of the Blue: A Book About Radio and Television. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952.)
Edwards doesn’t exactly make it easy for the poor schnooks who got stuck suffering the consequences, either: as he admits to Crosby, the fellow who got stuck in bed with the seal at Hollywood and Vine found he had three very familiar faces among the crowd walking by with jaws dropped: his wife, his boss, and his preacher. They asked variations on “What on earth are you doing here?” The poor fellow couldn’t answer, Edwards says, without forfeiting his prize money.
We had him groveling, but it was all right with the audience because they knew it had been explained to the preacher and the boss that it was all a gag. People worry about gags involving anyone’s boss. They wouldn’t like it a bit if the boss wasn’t in on it.
Or, if the preacher wasn’t. Put a guy in bed with a seal even for laughs and prizes in some places and you’re liable to find enough among the outraged demanding to know why the preacher wasn’t delivering the poor schnook a stern sermon against bestiality. Come to think of it, in some of those places, too, there might be calls for the preacher’s head on the collection plate if they did know the preacher was in on the gag.
There will be some classic stunts in which listeners (or viewers, when the show moves to television) might ponder whether there wasn’t a little more premeditation than even Edwards and his staff let on. To find a man willing to face the consequence of hitting a golf ball from coast to coast (I couldn’t make that up if you paid me the highest comedy writing fee in town), the show sends tickets to various golf clubs to make sure they’ll find a golfer who might be free for a week in the first place.
According to Crosby, Edwards and company even take medical precautions in the case of a man who must mount a pogo stick and race twenty miles from Los Angeles Airport to City Hall. His race opponent is an airplane.
He got to be so good on that pogo stick, he could have gone on to New York. He did the last mile without ever getting off the thing. He’d stop at red lights and bounce up and down. He beat the airplane (which took a circuitous route) by a day and a half.—Edwards, to Crosby.
When T & C moves to television at last, Crosby won’t be among the amused, exactly.
The radio version . . . was the ultimate in silliness, but at least it was decently veiled. Its television counterpart is a monstrosity of vulgarity. It reminded me strongly of Bedlam, the first English lunatic asylum, whose inmates provided amusement to throngs of spectators.
The shrieks of laughter from the studio audience were enough to drive the children from the room gibbering with fright. New York children, of course, are well inured to bloodshed in all its most devilish forms. They’re not yet accustomed to lunacy. The quality of this laughter—if that’s the word for it—is quite different from that at even the dizziest comedy show. You’ll find traces in it of embarrassment, of sadism, and of drooling idiocy. It’s a frightening noise, and to be sure you can see it as well as hear it, the cameras are frequently turned on the audience while they are in labour.
The visible Mr. Edwards is a pop-eyed gentleman with a wolfish grin who acts and even looks a little like a maniacal Bob Hope. The participants are indescribable except to someone with the gifts and the space of Charles Dickens. Their appearances are not helped much by the fact that this horrible operation is on kinescope, which is murky enough to malign them and not quite dark enough to obscure them entirely.
—John Crosby, “Sixteenth-Century Lunacy on Twentieth-Century Kinescope,” New York Herald-Tribune, 12 December 1950; republished in Out of the Blue.
Thus begins the bloodline that, leave us face it, begets Punk’d, Fear Factor, and their brethren and sistren, as a certain barkeep might phrase it.
TUNE IN TONIGHT:
THE WORST OF TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES
I’m not going to say a word.
Truth or Consequences is barely becoming a nationwide if often questioned radio phenomonen when it gets a trial television run, one time, in 1941. Perhaps knowing this was to be inspires Fred Allen, who isn’t exactly a huge fan even this soon of television or of radio’s festering giveaway shows (which will impact his own career somewhat profoundly after World War II), to take a swipe at the show tonight.
Which he does, with his Texaco Workshop Players (John Brown, Minerva Pious, Charles Cantor, Jack Smart), complete with an obnoxious heckler who beats the contestants to the truth—and with both contestants murdered—before the heckler reveals a secret of his own that may carry, shall we say, consequences for the cheerfully deconstructing host.
Also: The Texaco News examines havoc wreaked by the previous week’s heavy rains; a visit from Chief Nee-da-beh, a Penobscott Indian guide (his name means “great friend” in the Penobscott language), who discusses the Sportsman’s Show of which he’s a part; and, Kenny (Baker) gets drummed into and out of a telegraph corps almost in the blink of a ratings point.
With Portland Hoffa. Announcer: Jimmy Wallington. Music: Al Goodman Orchestra, the Martins, Kenny Baker. Writers: Fred Allen, Harry Tugend, Herman Wouk, Arnold Auerbach.
Further Channel Surfing . . .